The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


That Was The Year That Was …

So this is it, the last post of 2019.

Congratulations, you made it.

Yes, I know it’s early given there is still a couple of weeks to go in the year – including the inaugural R/GA London Planner Pie-Off – but despite what you may all think, I’ve had a big year and quite frankly, I need a rest from here as much as you do.

When I look at 2019, it’s been pretty good.

Of course there have been a few sad events – my dear Aunt Silvana dying and Justin’s wonderful wife, Ella – but overall, things have been positive.

Even the Beijing Hotel incident was amusing.

But most of all, the fact my family are good, healthy and happy makes it a good year, especially when you think of all the changes that have happened in our lives.

For Otis in particular, he has embraced all of it like a champion and watching him have his first day at ‘proper school’ made me feel incredibly emotional and very, very proud.

Quite frankly, the fact we have managed to stay in the same country for over 12 months is something we feel like celebrating – but not as much as my bank managers is doing – and we’re super excited that we have bought our first family home, even if we’ve not yet moved into it and it meant saying goodbye to the home I spent the first 25 years of my life in.

In fact ‘settling in’ has been a great plus of 2019.

We have a house, cars, some friends and finally feel part of a community … I’ve got to be honest, it’s a lovely feeling … and while I know there will be other changes in our life at some point in the future, this is a time I’m eternally grateful for.

There’s other stuff I’m grateful for too …

Without doubt, doing the Warc talk at Cannes with Martin was a wonderful highlight.

We were quite nervous about it but it seemed to have gone down well and I will always remember it and for that, we owe a debt to the wonderful Mercedes – Martin’s fiancé – who told us to get on with doing our school because she was sick to death of hearing us talk about doing more things together.

Love you Mercedes! And Martin. But more Mercedes.

Another thing – which is a bit weird, but seems to have helped some people – is when I wrote my post about being bullied at work. The response was phenomenal which led to Corporate Gaslighting. And while the amount of stories people are sending in – or agreeing to have published – on there has reduced, I know it has helped some people and I am happy I did it and will continue to do it.

Then there’s the fact I’ve been able to spend a bunch of time visiting China.

I love that place. In fact I would regard it as my ‘home’, despite having left there over 2 years ago.

To be able to spend so much time there and be energized by the city while connecting to new – and old – clients, has been magnificent.

Talking of returning to old things, having Otis’ beloved Elodie visit from LA was awesome.

Seeing them fall into their old, caring friendship was wonderful.

As I have said previously, taking him away from her was one of the hardest things about leaving LA – and while I know distance makes things harder, technology has obviously allowed their friendship to continue, which is the best ad for tech I can think of.

While I understand being emotional about Otis and Elodie being back together, I was surprised how emotional I felt when I went back to LA – especially when I visited Otis’ old kindergarten – but I suppose even the shortest time living in a place, leaves its mark on you.

There’s a bunch of other stuff I’m grateful for this year …

Nottingham Forest … for actually making me start to believe again.

I know it will end in tears, but it’s a nice feeling all the same.

There there’s the Brian May Guitar I bought after only 35 years of waiting.

Seeing Rod Stewart and Concorde were nice, as was getting a comment from Queen producer, Mack, and his son on the post I wrote about Freddie Mercury going to a birthday party dressed in the outfit he wore for the ‘It’s A Hard Life’ video.

That the gods of metal, Metallica, decided to extend the project that I’m doing for them for another THREE YEARS was a major plus. To be honest, I’m still not sure what I’m doing for them or if they like what I’m doing for them, but it keeps Otis in free Metallica t-shirts, so it’s worth doing.

I also got a bunch of new people in my life that I did not know previously.

From the brilliant students at the Brixton Finishing School, to the talented – but totally bonkers – creatives of Dayoung, Mike and Sam and not forgetting the wonderful Joel, Erika, Amar, Megan, Ed and Hannah who all stupidly decided to become members of the delightfully talented gang of planners at R/GA.

Before I end this utterly boring – but important [for me] post, I just want to say thank you to 3 more people.

First is the wonderful Paula Bloodworth not only got engaged – to a man from Nottingham no less [hahahaha] but she got asked to move to Portland to run strategy for NIKE globally at Wieden.

She will be brilliant.

More than people know – and they already know she will be brilliant.

I have had – and have – the great privilege of being able to call Paula a friend. I’ve worked with her, argued with her, laughed with her and caused havoc with her and through it all, her talent and humanity has shone through.

Wieden are very lucky to have her. Nike are very lucky to have her. I am very lucky to be able to call her a friend.

Second is the brilliant Severine Bavon.

Sev has been a part of my team from the beginning and this month she leaves us to strike out on her own.

Not as a freelancer … but to start a company that offers a new model for creativity and strategy for agencies and clients.

I’ve said many times that everyone should start their own company at some point and I am incredibly thrilled and proud that she is going to do just that.

Of course I’m going to miss her.

She’s brilliant, tenacious, smart and a million things I am not.

But I believe a bosses job is to help their people go on to bigger and better things. Bigger and better things they may never have imagined. Bigger and better things where they are chosen for who they are not just what they do.

And while I don’t think I did anything specific to help Sev make this decision, I have a vested interest in watching her do her thing and cheering her as she does it.

Which she will.

Sev, thank you for everything … believe in your talent, follow your gut, burn everything down that stands in your way.

So that leaves the final person … and as usual, it’s anyone and everyone who has written or visited this blog.

Ranting. Arguing. Swearing. Complaining. Caring. Debating.

It’s all meant a lot to me and after this length of time of writing basically the same 5 posts over and over again, I don’t take it for granted that you pop by and pass on your wisdom/insults.

I hope you all have a great festive season and may 2020 be epic.

Hopefully not as epic as I hope mine will be, but epic all the same.

I’m off to Australia for some sun and warmth and I’ll see you on Jan 6th cold, miserable and wondering how the holiday season passed by so fast.

Ta-ra.



Strategy Is A Direction, Not A Shopping List …

I am getting fed up of hearing strategy talked about in terms of a process.

Of course, there is one, but it seems people seem to value the process more than what it is supposed to deliver.

Which is clarity and direction.

Something that will change the behaviour of the brand/business from the very next day.

Something that will help create a clear position in culture, not just in the category.

Something that will contribute value, loyalty and appeal to the audience that will move them forward.

Something that is focused on the long-term, not just the next quarter.

That’s it.

That’s all strategy is.

And yet, I am meeting so many people who are getting lost in the process or worse, getting lost in the word ‘strategy’ … saying nothing can be done without it being deeply involved at every step – and I mean ‘every’ step – of the process.

Now don’t get me wrong, thinking and expertise is important – but to imply that only someone with the word ‘strategy’ in their title can do it, is wrong.

Actually, it’s insulting … especially when you consider that so much of the magic happens when you invite people who see the World differently to the party.

But it’s happening.

I’m seeing it everywhere.

And what it’s doing is creating so many strands to the strategy discipline, they’re getting in the way of each other.

That might be good for the agency fee, but not great for the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these strands of strategy don’t have value – of course they do – but in many areas, it’s not actually strategy … it’s not delivering on any of the 4 areas listed above … it’s simply helping push along the process of the output to get to a [allegedly] more effective result.

In other words, it’s short-term tuning rather than long term creating.

Adding obstacles rather than taking them away.

Or said more cynically, it’s more tactics than strategy.

Doesn’t have to be.

Not everyone is doing that.

Not everyone thinks like that.

But my god, it seems there is a lot of it about … and when you look at the amount of work that is being produced because of it, you have to admit that while there’s a lot of optimization, there’s not a lot of distinctive, magnetic energy.



Anything Is Easy If You Don’t Want It To Last

I am unashamedly a believer in brand.

I know there is a huge amount of talk about its commercial value, but – like the talk about whether we need ‘insights’ – there is plenty of evidence to suggest it continues to drive companies growth and revenue.

And while there are accademics, like Byron Sharp, who have proven people are far less loyal than they claim, the fact remains that loyalty – whether emotional or transactional – has significant value in building sustainable success for a brand.

But here’s the thing many brand owners forget.

To stand any chance of loyalty from your audience you need to be loyal to them.

Continuously.

It’s not good enough to simply offer discounts and early access.

Sure, that can help, but audiences know exactly why you’re doing it.

Real loyalty – by which I mean there is an almost irrational connection to a brand – is born from brands acting in ways that prove why people should care and keep believing in you.

Behaviour not just words.

Progress over the comfort of repetition.

Authenticity not just chasing popularity.

Telling beautiful stories not just spouting facts or contrived ‘ads’.

As I said, there are some marketers who say none of this matters in a world where digital enables them to have ‘direct to consumer’ relationships at a fraction of the cost of brand building.

I get it. It’s quick and it can be powerful which explains why every day there seems to be a new company claiming it will disrupt the category.

But where they go wrong is not realising disruption without distinction [ie: brand building] doesn’t create long term sustainable value, it just creates new commoditization.

In such an extremely competitive, highly-pressured, fast moving world, I would argue that brand has never been so important to stand a chance of having a stronger future.

And while this might all sound hypocritical given I work for a company who is trying to invent the future of marketing – which includes building new ways to have D2C relationships for clients, finding new ways to interact with subcultures through digital and passionately believes in disrupting categories – the fact is we never do this without an obsessive focus on the authenticity of the brand and how we can help it create the future culture wants to follow rather than just exploiting the offers of the present.

For me, the real issue is we are seeing is companies wanting all the good bits of brand loyalty without much of the effort, for which I leave them with this story I heard when living in China.

The successful farmer plants their seeds and nurtures them in the knowledge that when it comes time to harvest, their crop is bigger and healthier. It takes time, but it is always worth it.



New Is Easy, Right Is Hard …

I recently read an article on Linkedin about an agency launching a ‘world first’.

Was it something to save humanity?

Nope.

Was it something to help business?

Nope.

Was it something designed to get the agency some PR even though it had no intrinsic value to culture?

Absolutely.

All that aside, I do get the quest for ‘first’ from agencies perspective … they want to look like they’re relevant, creative, interesting and valuable … but the great irony is that all this stuff does the absolute opposite.

So to dear old adland, I ask you this …

Could you please start being as proud about craft as you are about doing something ‘first’.

Craft makes a huge amount of difference.

It turns potential into possible.

It changes how people look at you and what they can do with you.

It creates division between you and your competitors.

Craft might not always get the PR headlines, but it makes people care – and given the alternative is World Firsts like that fucking Peggy Peg from a few years ago – that is a much better position to be in for all of our futures.



Professional To The Core …

For reasons I don’t understand – but I do like – I occasionally get asked for my opinion in industry magazines.

While I absolutely take what I do seriously, I have realized that if I was to compile all that I’ve said that has been printed, I would look a bit of a maniac.

For example, there’s this. Or this. Or even this.

And just recently I was asked ‘what Star Wars character would I be’ and this was my answer …

But here is the thing …

While many may think I do this because I need psychiatric help or have a career death wish, there’s another reason behind it and it’s about comfortableness.

You see when I was a youngster in the industry, I was surrounded by super-smart, super-senior people who were full of opinion, personality and provocation.

While I didn’t agree with everything they said, they helped me realise that ‘just because you take your job seriously, doesn’t mean you have to take yourself seriously’.

What this did was let me feel comfortable in taking to any of them about any madcap idea I had … let me talk to clients about subjects that may otherwise seem ‘off limits’ and let me work with colleagues without thinking it made me look weak or incapable.

In essence, cheekiness has enabled me to do – or be part of – things that I may not otherwise never have been able to do.

From work I’ve been a part of … clients I’ve worked with … agencies I’ve worked at and countries I’ve lived in.

Now of course, mischief is in my bones so it wasn’t exactly hard … but being encouraged to embrace my truth rather than oppress it had a huge benefit to my career and so while a bunch of what I say and do is because I’m a bloody idiot, there is a part of it that is intended to create the space and atmosphere to enable my colleagues and clients feel comfortable with being vulnerable … whether that’s expressing their ideas, their fears and ambitions or simply realizing that if I can have a career while still being a sweary fool, then they – with all their talent – surely can.

You might think this is a load of bollocks – and I totally understand get why – but it’s true.

The future of adland is not going to come from more processes, it’s going to come from more people being able to express or explore their ideas without fearing they will be judged, shot down or ridiculed.

And if you think that’s a dramatic statement, just go on twitter and see how the masses react to any idea that challenges the belief system they have bought into, even though they know for a fact that the very small amount of people who succeed – which are mainly white men – are generally the ones who reinforce the cliche rather than push or break them.

Happy Monday.



Best Of The Best Or The Least Bad?

Today I’m judging the Effies.

Oh awards …

I’ve written so, so much about them in the past.

Like here. And here. And here. And here.

I must admit, I am intrigued to see what they are going to be like in the UK.

Will they be a celebration of insightful efficiency or will they be like I experienced too many times in Asia, a stream of consciousness that just rumbles along till they think they have explained how they got to their idea and how they have proved it worked.

I guess we shall see later today.

I really, really hope they are good.

Not just because the Effies have always had a standard they’ve lived up to, but because it will give me faith the industry still has fight in it to do things right.

In my time in the UK, I’ve read a bunch of planning documents/portfolios/resumes that have been more about packaging.

Repeating a client brief in a way that has been ‘sexed up’.

Superficial.

Executional.

Literal.

There are a bunch of reasons for this.

Part of it is the lack of training agencies give their strategiests.

[Hence why we started the School of Strategic Arts]

Part of it is the huge amount of freelance planners out there who are doing exactly what they are asked because they are fighting for their livelihood.

And part of it is because of the client/agency remuneration deals which means planners are giving too little time to explore the best outcome to the problem they face.

Planning has a valuable role to play in effectiveness.

Planning has a valuable role to play in creativity.

But it needs to be allowed to do it to make it happen … so here’s hoping we see the best of what it can do today, because the Effies is not just important for the people who win, but for what the industry needs to get back to being.



Could Everyone Associated With This Please Punch Yourself In The Face …

Have a look at this …

I’ve got to be honest, I think it’s one of the most amazing ads I’ve ever seen.

Not – of course – because it’s good, but because there’s so many things in it to hate, I don’t know which one I loathe more.

From the cliched photograph that is obviously trying to associate with street culture through to the absolutely fucking awful oxymoron/pun of ‘Future Retro’ and ‘Deja New’ … there is an endless amount of hate inducing triggers in this ad.

But even those things don’t come close to releasing my inner rage as ‘Time Tracker’.

TIME TRACKER!!!

It’s a watch. A bloody watch. Yes, they ‘track time’ but they’re attempt to make it sound like the future of watches makes me literally want to kill.

Oh I am thinking about how I’d do it.

Maybe a wooden post so I can smack them around the head.

Or maybe a canon, so I can shoot them far, far away.

Or maybe … oh hang on, I know what I’ll do … I’ll make them wear that ‘time tracker’ and refer to it in the same way, so their shame will be all encompassing and complete.

Time Tracker is a perfect example of something I’ve been seeing more and more of … repositioning that isn’t repositioning.

Repositioning is about helping culture look at your brand in a totally different way.

When Wrigley’s chewing gum moved from being a sweet to a dental care product … that is repositioning.

When Poloroid cameras shifted from photography to being a social lubricant … that is a repositioning.

When Old Spice moved from being used by men to being valued by women … that is repositioning.

A watch going from telling the time to tracking the time is not.

And yet I am seeing more and more work that is trying to position themselves as a catalyst for change when they’re doing nothing but re-articulating the category expression.

One of the categories doing this the most is the financial sector.

There are more new ‘banks’ than at any point in my life.

All with quirky names.

All claiming to be revolutionizing the industry.

All stating they are being developed around the needs of their customers.

And yet not one of them seems to realize that as much as they’re trying to be seen as disrupting the banking industry, they’re doing it in exactly the same way as everyone else.

Disruption but without distinction.

But here’s the thing, are they even disrupting … because so many of them are trying to communicate you can ‘trust’ them. I get trust is important wherever money is concerned, but it is also the backbone of the industry … so in essence, they’re saying ‘we’re different’ and yet they are communicating in exactly the same way as the establishment.

In essence, they’ve become the beast they claim they were created to slay …

But they’re actually worse, because not building any distinction into their offering or behaviour except their name and choice of pastel ‘brand’ colour means all they are really building is commodotisation.

Of course that’s probably because their business plan is to be bought by the establishment and so they don’t care about long term thinking, but this – just like the idiots behind that Nixon watch – is the new ‘best practice’ for brand and business strategy.

And we wonder why the business community questions our ability to talk business.